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Volume 171: debated on Wednesday 25 April 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has any proposals to use empty Government-owned property for homeless people.

It is Government policy to sell such empty houses that are no longer needed. Where disposal is not practicable, Departments let property to local authorities or housing associations to relieve local housing pressures.

Is the Minister aware that there are about 35,000 Government-owned properties and that in the south-east alone there are more than 1,000 properties owned by the Ministry of Defence—some of them shown in pictures such as I have here? Does not he think it a scandal that about 18 per cent. of Government-owned properties are lying empty while only 2 per cent. of local authorities' properties are empty? How can he tell local authorities how to manage their housing when the Government obviously cannot manage their own?

Our policy is to sell Government houses that are not required or, when appropriate, to rent them on a short-term basis. To answer the hon. Lady directly, what is a national scandal is that housing authorities that are directly responsible for managing the housing stock are sitting on more than 100,000 empty council houses in England alone. The worst offenders are overwhelmingly Labour authorities. Labour is presiding over housing waste on a massive scale while at the same time bleating about homelessness.

Will my hon. Friend note that one of the great problems for the homeless in Lambeth is the cynical disregard of their plight by a local authority that has 2,000 empty homes, 1,900 people in expensive bed-and-breakfast accommodation and rent and rate arrears of £66 million? Would not the best news for the homeless in Lambeth be a return of a Conservative local authority on 3 May?

My hon. Friend makes a perfect point, which exactly illustrates what I have just been saying.

The Minister is misleading the House: it is not the Government's policy to sell these houses. Many of them have been standing empty for more than 10 years. There are literally dozens in my area belonging to the prison department that have been empty for 10 years, three years and so on. Why does not the Minister arrange for them to be let, through housing associations and local authorities? Does not he remember opening the Institute of Housing exhibition in this very House only a few weeks ago, in which the displays demonstrated that the Government's record is worse than that of any other housing body—local authority, housing association or private? In percentage terms, the Government have three times as many empty properties as local authorities. The Minister cannot blame local authorities when he is incapable of providing for homeless people the housing that he has right now.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman spoke about percentage terms, because we have a much smaller housing stock than local authorities, which are, of course, responsible for housing. Of course the percentage could be lower. The answer to the hon. Gentleman is that the Government, and especially Departments such as the Ministry of Defence, have to keep surplus housing for contingency purposes. The hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly be able to guess for himself what those purposes are. When properties cannot be sold we are beginning to let them to housing authorities. There have been 570 lets in recent months, so the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong to say that the property is not being shifted.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the distribution of the £250 million package to combat homelessness in London and the south-east.

Allocations of £112 million have been made this year to local authorities. In addition, the Housing Corporation has announced £45 million worth of housing association schemes to help the homeless over the next two years. Bids for the remaining £93 million will be invited later in the year.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. How much of that money will be used to bring empty properties into use? What is being done to speed up the work of housing associations and others so that they can bring more affordable rented property on to the market in the south-east as an alternative to local authority accommodation?

The objective of that money is largely to bring into use housing that is not being used properly, thus releasing people from bed-and-breakfast places. That will help directly the single homeless. In that context I am placing in the Library today a list of 26 voluntary organisations that will be offered a total of about £1 million of funding this year for projects that will relieve or prevent single homelessness.

Does the Minister realise that the record number of homeless people means that there is a record number of disfranchised people in London and the south-east and in the rest of the country? Is not the truth of the Government's tragic and scandalous record of failing to provide housing, that people without houses do not support the Government and people who do not support the Government do not get a vote?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the scandalous record of the Government in not providing housing. An extra 1·7 million houses have been provided over the past 10 years whereas the population has risen by less than 1 million. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a problem of homelessness. It could be relieved overnight if Labour-controlled local authorities put on the market their void housing. Nevertheless, one needs to look at why there is a homelessness problem. It is overwhelmingly a matter of families splitting because of problems at home. That creates a demand for two houses when before there was a demand for one.

While accepting the congratulations, at least from Conservative Members, on the Government's latest package, my hon. Friend will of course accept that there is concern about homelessness on both sides of the House. Does not he find it astonishing that the Opposition's only solution, amid their carping about the Government's proposals, is to spend more money on local authorities, which too often have high rent arrears and long relet periods, and which exhibit a general incompetence which, among other things, was commented upon at length by the Audit Commission?

My hon. Friend is right. We are often accused of not providing enough resources. Rent arrears are overwhelmingly found in Labour-controlled local authorities. Some £319 million is not being raised because of rent arrears, and responsibility for the overwhelming part of that lies with Labour-controlled authorities. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that scandalous situation.